Artist's exhibition helps her deal with the personal trauma of death

Nelson artist Sally Burton with the Arthur Wakefield figure she made out of wood and tapa cloth.
Daniel Allen

Nelson artist Sally Burton with the Arthur Wakefield figure she made out of wood and tapa cloth.

Working on her new exhibition visualising the Wairau Incident helped Nelson artist Sally Burton work through the grief of losing her partner. 

Burton is dedicating the exhibition Pale History to her partner David Morley, who died two years ago, eight months into the project. 

"Without his help sourcing, cutting and hauling the wood back to my studio, this project would never have got off the ground."

Sally Burton's Te Rauparaha figure as part of the Pale History exhibition.
Daniel Allen

Sally Burton's Te Rauparaha figure as part of the Pale History exhibition.

Burton has taken to wood and tapa cloth to create life-size figures of the people involved in the incident which saw 26 people die.

Ngāti Toa and the settlers of Nelson clashed over land rights on June 17, 1843 in the Wairau Valley, triggered by a report from John Cotterell, a surveyor with the New Zealand Company.

A raupō hut containing his equipment had been burnt by Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha who, for the third time, had tried to evict Pākehā surveyors from the Wairau.

Sally Burton's map made with acrylic and gold leaf on tapa cloth.
Daniel Allen

Sally Burton's map made with acrylic and gold leaf on tapa cloth.

The Wairau Incident was the first major confrontation between Māori and colonials since the 1840 signing of The Treaty of Waitangi, killing 22 Europeans and four Māori.

Burton said after David died, she took a long break from creating the exhibition as she didn't want to be in the studio.

But after a while she realised she needed to finish it, to help herself to process the grief and loss, and to dedicate the works to him. 

"It became a bigger thing than just the Wairau. 

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"I put everything on hold and poured everything into this project."

She said her son Jake had been a great help in creating the project, especially after David died. 

Working on the exhibition was a way for her to work through her emotions and to guide her through life without David.

"Sometimes creative things happen in that kind of space."

Burton worked on the exhibition, which opens at the Suter Art Gallery at the beginning of November, for two years researching the incident and the characters involved. 

Pale History consists of 10 life-size figures, as well as a detailed map, a few paintings, mirrors and an interpretation of the Blenkinsopp's Cannon.

"I live on Cotterell Rd on the edge of the Waimea Plains near Nelson, and often reflect on the life of John Sylvanus Cotterell, after who this road was named."

Cotterell was a 23-year-old Quaker and activist who was killed during the incident. 

Burton said the most interesting thing she found while researching the incident was that Cotterell had been the catalyst in the incident, despite being an activist. 

"An information board at the end of Cotterell Rd outlines his life, and features a watercolour of his guide Piki Warra, painted by Isaac Coates.

"This gave me the idea of recreating a historical narrative of the Wairau Incident, using Coates' watercolours as a reference for the Māori figures."

Burton said the road she lives on runs out past Pearl Creek to the Waimea River and winter storms often bring wood down the river, which was her starting point for the exhibition.

"I started by finding really interesting bits of drift wood, basically a small tree with branches, which I then inverted and that became the basis of the figure.

"I picked up all the part of drift wood used in the figures over a very long time at the river and around the beaches, bits of beautiful wood burnished by tide and time on all sides."

Burton said creating the figures was "a huge process" and she worked on them simultaneously.

Whenever she found the right piece of wood for the right figure, she would add to it. 

"I like to think perhaps the trees were growing when the men were alive, which gives the figures a poignant edge." 

"My other primary medium, tapa cloth, is made from the beaten bark of the paper mulberry tree from the Pacific Islands of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, and gives the work a South Pacific context."

Burton said she used the tapa cloth to create the heads, hair and clothing of each person featured in the exhibition, and the map, cannon and phantom waka painting were also done on tapa cloth. 

She said this exhibition was her first "foray" into creating three dimensional art, as she had always created paintings. 

"I think you could see this exhibition as a three-dimensional history painting, it gives the incident a grand historical narrative."

Burton said she had asked people around her if they knew about the Wairau Incident and had found that most people didn't.

"It's a very important and not very well known story.

"Hopefully the exhibition brings it to life. I really hope it sparks conversations."

The Pale History exhibition is at the Suter Art Gallery from November 4 to March 11 2018. 

 - Stuff

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